Jordan Peterson P7 - Nihilism vs the Goodness of Being


(SeanO) #1

This is a series of post on Jordan Peterson’s book ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. It has become popular and it is important to understand why it is appealing to this generation and how it is different from the Gospel. Each post will be on a specific chapter or section of the book and the hope is that we can engage in conversation over these matters. I hope to represent his thought accurately - but due to being human may not always do so.

Summary Chapter 6

Set your house in order before you criticize the world

Like Cain killing his brother Abel, people who commit terrible atrocities are facing the harsh realities of life and acting out the desire for vengeance caused by bitterness and self-deceit. But like the Hebrew people, who recognized their responsibility in the tragedies of their nation, or great men like Solzhenitsyn, who admitted he was complicit in the rise of communism and stood up against it to great effect, we can choose to become stronger and wiser through the hardship we suffer rather than bitter. If we stop filling our heads with lies and begin acting on what we know to be true, we can daily move towards having a less corrupted soul and becoming the type of people who can make the world a better place. Our uncorrupted soul can then see existence as something worth celebrating even though we ourselves are so vulnerable and imagine that the world could be a better place if everyone would do the same.

Why are these ideas appealing?

What do you think? Why do you think people are attracted to these ideas?

I believe these ideas are appealing because they offer hope for the future - a remedy for the nihilism that threatens us when we go through terrible tragedies or see the terrible suffering in the world around us. Peterson stares reality in the face and offers a path out of despair and he does so without requiring his reader to adhere to any particular belief system. I think this last bit is part of the major appeal - Peterson leaves you with the power to determine good and evil for yourself. The only moral value he is trying to convince you of is the goodness of Being vs non-Being. He is contending that if we order our own lives we will see that Being - that life - can be good if we will work towards it.

Critique of Chapter 6

The Greek philosopher Epicurus said that to achieve happiness we must all deal with 3 things - fear of divine judgment, fear of death and anxiety about tomorrow (Love, Permanence, Assurance). Epicurus’ solution was to set your expectations low - be satisfied with just necessities (no one really does this). Buddha once said - “When pleasure or pain come, the wise are above them”. So their solution to happiness was to have low expectations and ignore both pleasure/pain.

How does Peterson deal with these 3 questions from Epicurus? As far as I can tell his answer goes something like this - “God is not real. Death is inevitable. The future is uncertain. But if you will decide to change your life instead of cursing fate - to take responsibility for your own Being - then you may be part of making this world a better place to live.” As a clinical psychologist who needs to help patients with a variety of perspectives, I understand this answer very well. Peterson is trying to convince us to take a leap of faith without any object for that faith because he realizes the benefits of this way of life. But he has given us no foundation.

As I point out in the following thread, Christianity offers us a firm foundation and can actually answer Epicurus’ three questions. The cross proves God’s love. God’s care gives us assurance. And the resurrection guarantees permanence.

Peterson made a common error in asserting that Jesus was expressing complete abandonment on the cross. Jesus was actually quoting Psalms 22, which does express suffering and distance, but also hope and assurance that God will be the victor in the end. The following article explores in a little more depth.

One thing I liked was how Peterson talked about an equivalent of ‘renewing our mind’. He said we need to quit lying to ourselves and we need to act in accordance with truth to mature. While Peterson did not provide an actual moral basis for doing this - the idea does have a corollary in Scripture.

Romans 12:2 - Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Hebrews 5:14 - But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Philippians 4:8 - Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Quotes from Chapter 6

whenever we experience the horror and pain of our own apparently arbitrary limitations—the temptation to question Being and then to curse it rises foully from the darkness. Why must innocent people suffer so terribly? What kind of bloody, horrible planet is this, anyway?

At the height of his fame, influence and creative power, for example, the towering Leo Tolstoy himself began to question the value of human existence. He reasoned in this way: My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing in the way of rational knowledge except a denial of life; and in faith I could find nothing except a denial of reason, and this was even more impossible than a denial of life.

How can the rest of us manage, when a man of Tolstoy’s stature admits defeat? For years, he hid his guns from himself and would not walk with a rope in hand, in case he hanged himself. How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world?

Cain, in his rage, kills Abel, God’s favourite (and, truth be known, Cain’s idol). Cain is jealous, of course, of his successful brother. But he destroys Abel primarily to spite God. This is the truest version of what happens when people take their vengeance to the ultimate extreme.

Even Christ Himself felt abandoned before the cross, or so the story goes.

Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Nietzsche wrote those words. What he meant was this: people who experience evil may certainly desire to perpetuate it, to pay it forward. But it is also possible to learn good by experiencing evil. A bullied boy can mimic his tormentors. But he can also learn from his own abuse that it is wrong to push people around and make their lives miserable.

if it’s her fault, she might be able to do something about it. If it’s God’s fault, however—if reality itself is flawed, hell-bent on ensuring her misery—then she is doomed. She couldn’t change the structure of reality itself. But maybe she could change her own life.

Solzhenitsyn’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society. He took an axe to the trunk of the tree whose bitter fruits had nourished him so poorly—and whose planting he had witnessed and supported. One man’s decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core.

The Hebrews repent, at length, blaming their misfortune on their own failure to adhere to God’s word. They insist to themselves that they could have done better. They rebuild their state, and the cycle begins again. This is life. We build structures to live in. We build families, and states, and countries. We abstract the principles upon which those structures are founded and formulate systems of belief. At first we inhabit those structures and beliefs like Adam and Eve in Paradise. But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality—of God? Or do things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention?

A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known—that’s sin. That’s failure to hit the mark. And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The ancient Jews always blamed themselves when things fell apart. They acted as if God’s goodness—the goodness of reality—was axiomatic, and took responsibility for their own failure. That’s insanely responsible. But the alternative is to judge reality as insufficient, to criticize Being itself, and to sink into resentment and the desire for revenge.

Your head will start to clear up, as you stop filling it with lies. Your experience will improve, as you stop distorting it with inauthentic actions. You will then begin to discover new, more subtle things that you are doing wrong. Stop doing those, too. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler and less complicated. Your judgment will improve. You will untangle your past. You will become stronger and less bitter. You will move more confidently into the future. You will stop making your life unnecessarily difficult. You will then be left with the inevitable bare tragedies of life, but they will no longer be compounded with bitterness and deceit. Perhaps you will discover that your now less-corrupted soul, much stronger than it might otherwise have been, is now able to bear those remaining, necessary, minimal, inescapable tragedies.

Perhaps your uncorrupted soul will then see its existence as a genuine good, as something to celebrate, even in the face of your own vulnerability. Perhaps you will become an ever-more-powerful force for peace and whatever is good. Perhaps you will then see that if all people did this, in their own lives, the world might stop being an evil place.

(Brittany Bowman) #2

I appreciate you taking time to flesh out your thoughts on Peterson, Sean. As someone younger on this forum, some of the objections to Peterson you have shared over the series are things that have rubbed me the wrong way in modern culture but that I couldn’t articulate my reasons why. I have had a similar experience with the Vital Signs podcast.

Perhaps this trend of working hard to better the world, without a faith foundation to build upon, is more pervasive than we realize. Self-help books are quite the rage, encouraging goal-setting and discovery of one’s hidden talents as the secret to success. Even books that use Scripture verses and encourage us to love one another with a Christian mindset keep emphasizing goal-setting. I’m a firm believer in working hard and planning, but these conversations can only happen in the context of reminding readers our desire for success is not an end destination, but rather a way God turns our hearts upward to desiring full completion. Our desire for success is a way for our hearts to realize we are not complete as we are. I think the Connect thread, “Desire Against Materialism” is the vital second half of a conversation encouraging people to work hard. Perhaps one allure to this mindset is an American trend of awarding mediocrity. Kids may have received participation trophies, but they still have the innate, God-given desire for excellence.

Christians realize God doesn’t rely solely on our efforts for His will to be done. If he relied on flawed mortals, all His plans would fail. Instead, He gives us the opportunity to serve Him so we can deepen our relationship with Him. What a wonderful opportunity!! To place such an emphasis on results and ambition is suffocating and what Gordon MacDonald calls a “golden cage.” Even with Christian goals, focusing on results can create idolatry. This article helped me a few months ago in this area.

(SeanO) #3

@Brittany_Bowman1 Certainly - @CarsonWeitnauer suggested the undertaking and it has proven both profitable and enjoyable. I recall meeting @Cameron_McAllister at the EAP program and am not surprised you are finding his podcasts helpful. For those unfamiliar with Gordon MacDonald’s book, I have posted a link to a blog that gives a thorough outline of its contents, since they seem to be relevant to the discussion. I think you are exactly right in pointing to the grace of God and His steadfast love as part of what is missing in Peterson’s idea of the ‘goodness of Being’.

Tim Keller has pointed out that we cannot give ourselves an identity. Identity is always rooted outside of us. Peterson suggests that we ‘take responsiblity for our own Being’. Keller says that the weight of trying to create our own identity is ultimately crushing - we cannot bear that weight. But grace gives us an identity that is bearable - the yoke is easy and the burden light.

In terms of goal setting, it seems to me that the goal is to focus on God rather than on goals. We set goals, but we hold those goals lightly, realizing that God gives and takes away - that He is sovereign. Simultaneously, we set goals and look to God for victory, realizing it is not our intelligence or strength or riches that give us victory, but the name of our God.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 - Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD.

Along those same lines, I think we see that God Himself is the goal - He is the treasure - He is life! To reject Him is death. To try to figure out identity and meaning and hope and joy apart from God is like trying to find the way out of a room with no doors or to reach the end of a never ending maze. Right when you think you’ve done it - a new obstacle emerges. Christ is the door - He is the gate - the way to life.

Matthew 13:44 - The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

John 17:3 - Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

(Daniel Moon) #4

Hi! I’m new to RZIM Connect. Seems like a great place to hang out! 8]

I listened on YouTube to a recent debate in Vancouver between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, moderated by Bret Weinstein. Peterson summarized Harris’ dilemma for him (in a satisfactory manner, according to Harris): His difficulty is he is unclear on how reason as a foundation/basis for his morality can keep it from drifting either into moral relativism, or the other way into inflexible fundamentalism (which is his exact objection to religion). Of course as the discussion narrowed he resorted to attacking religion in general as usual, throwing in specific out-of-context examples from the Bible, (and a few specific examples from the Quran). Sigh.

Peterson though, when asked whether he believes in the Biblical God as factual and historical, said, " I never said that I believed in God, I said that ‘I live as though God exists’", which I think explains much of his insecurity and general angst, and why he can’t plant his feet firmly on the Christian worldview… A lot of his Biblical inaccuracies are surprising too, (particularly those regarding Christ), given the degree of thought put into his arguments…

Anyway, I hope he listens to some good Biblical exposition in the future, (and to some RZIM talks and Q&A! He should probably read Amy Orr-Ewing’s book on the reliability of the Bible too). Hope you all have a good week!

(SeanO) #5

@wheredamoon Welcome and thank you for your thoughts. Yes, Connect is a great place to learn and grow together in our walk with Christ and wisdom in reaching the world with His grace and truth.

I watched bits of the debate you referred to and learned something helpful about Peterson’s approach to discerning useful beliefs. He recommends what he calls a ‘consilience’ approach.

Consilience - the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory

The basic idea is that Peterson looked at evolutionary biology, Christianity and other religious traditions, philosophy, neuroscience, literature on emotion and motivation and literature on play and tried to find a pattern that repeated across all dimensions of evaluation. If a pattern manifested itself in all of these disciplines then the likelihood it is false is greatly decreased. So for Peterson the Bible is simple one religious tradition he uses as a point of reference as he tries to find universal patterns / archetypes.

In this debate, Peterson says he is actually trying to create a worldview that is more fundamental than any of the other worldviews - that gets at the reality underlying them. So he is essentially trying to suggest his own worldview based on order and chaos and the goodness of Being.

Yes, let us pray for him. Dear Lord, we pray that you might open Peterson’s eyes to see your glory and grace. That you might put events in his life and books that would help him to see that Christ is way, the truth and the life - to see that there is no life apart from God and that God exists and is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

(Daniel Moon) #6

Great, thank you much for that distillation. That’s very helpful for me in how I can categorize his approach. (My wife bought his book, though I’d listened to talks by him and she not so much.). Don’t want to put him in a box, but it’s helpful to know more precisely the basis of his worldview and how it differs from a Biblical one.

Look forward to more helpful discussion!

(SeanO) #7

@wheredamoon Yes, as humans our beliefs are fluid and often more complex than we can easily convey in words, so it is not good to put people in categories as if that category defines all of what they believe. Looking forward to continuing the discussion!

(Jimmy Sellers) #8

Sounds a lot like apologetics to me. :grinning: